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Dispute Boils on How Children Will Fare as Welfare Is Reformed

LISTEN to the Children's Defense Fund, and the picture for children under welfare reform looks bleak.

In the past two weeks alone, the advocacy group asserts, Republican-controlled House committees have cut $40 billion from core safety-net programs over the next five years, cuts that would deny basic services to millions of children.

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Rep. Jim McCrery (R) of Louisiana sees a different picture. ''The current system punishes children, and a massive change will protect children from the current system, which traps them in poverty,'' says Mr. McCrery, a member of the House Ways and Means Committee, which this week is drafting welfare-reform legislation.

Like many emotional Washington issues, the debate over welfare reform -- and how it will affect children -- has had a polarizing effect. The loudest voices, and thus those getting the most attention, are painting dire scenarios, leaving a bewildered public in the middle.

At root, no one really knows what will happen to children if the federal guarantee of support is abolished and states are left to design and administer programs. For some, that level of uncertainty is enough to raise alarm bells about how the youngest members of society -- who don't vote or have powerful lobbyists -- will fare.

Conservative commentator Kevin Phillips argued in a Senate hearing this week in favor of a national minimum standard for children. That echoes the constant refrain of Vermont Gov. Howard Dean (D), chairman of the National Governors Association, who favors devolving decisionmaking on some welfare programs to the states -- in particular, those deemed not to be working very well, such as the cash-assistance program Aid to Families With Dependent Children.

But he has repeatedly urged setting nationwide standards for children. ''I think America has a national interest in its children, and the same benefits and strength and support that a child from Minnesota deserves [are] the same benefits and strength and support that a child from Alabama deserves,'' Governor Dean said this week.

Some Republicans counter with an argument made by Sen. Spencer Abraham (R) of Michigan at a recent hearing: What governor is going to set up programs that allow legions of children to ''fall through the cracks?'' Aside from being morally untenable, this would not be in a governor's political interest, they contend.

The concern among childrens' advocates is not that states won't have an interest in protecting children, but that the resources won't be there to do so adequately. A majority of governors are willing to accept a fixed level of funding for welfare programs in exchange for gaining control of those programs.

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BUT what will happen during a recession, when tax revenues decline and welfare case loads increase? Governors say they'll have rainy-day funds for that purpose. And if the funds aren't enough, say members of Congress, Congress will pass supplemental spending bills to feed children. Liberals aren't so certain.

The debate over the federal school-lunch program exemplifies the back and forth Washington is seeing on social policy. This is a program that Democrats and Republicans agree ''works'': It aids children directly, boosting national nutrition levels. In some cases, it provides children with the only meal they get all day.

So why turn it over to the states in the form of lump-sum payments? Because, say advocates of these block-grants, it will allow governors to coordinate school lunches with all the other nutrition programs that Republicans plan to devolve to state control.

Furthermore, Republicans say, the school-lunch program is not being cut, as Democrats claim, but just not being increased as much. Democrats say this increase is not adequate to cover future needs.

In communities across the country, all the talk of block grants and cuts in funding increases have produced bewilderment and some concern. At the Hamilton Madison Child Care Center in New York's Chinatown, which serves low-income families, director Effie Lui says cuts in city funding are already affecting her center. In the past, she says, the city picked up the slack when federal funding fell short.

Now, she's concerned that parents are going to have to pay more. ''If the federal government gets strict and the city cuts back, a lot of our parents will stop work,'' she says. In some ways, the Hamilton Madison Center typifies the problem for federally subsidized day-care centers. The families are working class -- here, the mothers typically work in garment factories, the fathers in restaurants -- and their finances are fragile.

Twenty-five years ago, says Ms. Lui, when day care wasn't as common, children stayed home alone or went to work with their parents. She hopes she won't see a return to the days when nine-year-olds stayed home with preschoolers.

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